The Yin & Yang of Sports Recovery

May 24, 2014
Categories: Sports Nutrition


All things in nature require a balance of yin and yang – dark and light, white and black, male and female, and so on.  The human body is that way too – it needs balance in order to have optimal health, or homeostasis. Yet too often, we are so focused on working out harder, getting faster, and pushing ourselves; that we forget that we also need to support the body to heal and recover!  This can potentially lead to fatigue, performance issues; injuries, burn out, and even adrenal fatigue. And in kids it can even lead to slow growth or delayed puberty.

Here are some tips to help make sure your athlete is recovering properly:

Free Radical Repair:
Athletes can suffer up to 200 times the free radical damage compared to less active people.  Scientists have found that a diet rich in antioxidants may help with exercise recovery by reducing muscular damage.   Plant-based foods are all good sources of antioxidants and fiber, especially berries.  Dried berries are a good addition to trail mixes, especially goji berries which are known for stimulating Human Growth Hormone.  Here is a list of 15 Superfoods for Peak Performance – if you are using some of these foods already – great!  If not, see how you can fit them into your diet, and see if you notice a difference in performance and recovery. And make sure to get organic for The Dirty Dozen to avoid pesticides.

I find smoothies to be one of the easiest ways to pack in the nutrition – I like to use coconut water as a base, because that will support hydration and help replenish lost glycogen, and then add in superfoods like chia or hemp seeds, and toss in some berries for free radical repair.  I also like to make a “secret salad” in my smoothies – by adding in some baby spinach or a greens powder – you can’t even taste it!  Another good addition is a teaspoon or two of coconut oil, which is a healthy fat that is converted to energy quickly.

Muscle Building and Repair:
Proteins are the building blocks for our muscles, and also critical for detoxification channels. When it comes to protein – quality is key.  Focus on grass fed beef, and organic chicken, pork, and pastured eggs. Conventional animal protein can contain hormones, antibiotics, and also resistant bacteria. Eating some protein within a half an hour of your practice or game is a good strategy for building and repairing muscle tissue. Just know, it does not have to be a big serving – overdoing the protein is a common mistake – especially with the protein powders and bars.  A handful of nuts is an easy and portable option, or if you like bars, look for organic or non-GMO options, and ones with the fewest ingredients (that you know what they are).  But too much protein taken in one sitting simply will get stored as excess fatty tissue, and in excess can be hard on the kidneys over time.

Again, smoothies are another way to get protein – add a scoop of high quality protein powder (I like Warrior Blend or a grass fed whey if you can handle dairy). I am also recommending avoiding rice-based protein powders unless they are certified clean from a 3rd party source, since many were found to have high levels of heavy metals.  And I recommend avoiding soy protein – it is poorly digested, and usually genetically modified (unless it says non-GMO or organic), and in large amounts can increase estrogen levels. Fermented soy like miso is fine.

Make sure to balance out the workouts – with strength and flexibility. Too much cardio can cause excess catabolism, which can lead to muscle loss. So that is why it is important for endurance athletes to including weight bearing activities, so they do not break down muscle. Weight bearing activities are also important for bones  And working on flexibility is also helpful to prevent injuries and muscle aches.

Preventing Chronic Injuries:
Chronic injuries can be a sign of poor form or over-training, or they could indicate that there is chronic inflammation.  It is important for all athletes to try to have an inflammation-lowering diet.  Getting plenty of Omega 3 fatty acids in the diet (fish oil, chia seeds, nuts, grass fed beef, pasture-raised eggs), can help to prevent and reduce inflammation. It can also support mood, brain function, and more. Again, smoothies are a great way to get those chia or hemp seeds!   Food that promote inflammation?  Processed foods, sugary foods and drinks, trans fats, added chemicals, and omega 6 fats like soy and vegetable oils. Limiting those foods is important too.

Undiagnosed food intolerances in another potential reason for chronic pain and injuries. Food intolerances can create systemic inflammation in the body. Other signs of food intolerances – migraines, unexplained muscle aches and pains, focus & attention issues, gas, bloating, bed wetting after age 4 (usually dairy), mood imbalances, weight gain, hormone imbalances, rashes/skin issues, anxiety, acne, frequent colds/infection, and much more.

How do you know if you have an intolerance? It is not easy because the symptoms can be delayed, and hard to pin down. A food intolerance test can identify over 150 foods and chemicals for intolerances. Another way to go if there is a suspected food sensitivity is to eliminate it for a week or two, and then reintroduce and see if there is a reaction or a return of symptoms. If there is an intolerance, I recommend working with a nutritionist or health practitioner to heal the gut, which is often the root cause of the intolerance.

Proper hydration is not only important for performance (even mild dehydration can negatively affect performance), but it also is important for recovery – it is critical for life!  In addition to water, endurance athletes regularly need to replenish lost sodium and  electrolytes like potassium, magnesium, and chloride with their fluids.  They could do this with hydration replenishers*, eating hydrating foods, or you can make a simple recovery drink with a pinch or two of mineral-rich Pink Himalayan sea salt, the juice from ½ a lemon, and a touch of honey (if desired). Here is a list of some hydrating foods.

Don’t fear high quality salt – Americans are told to get the salt out of their diets, and I do recommend tossing out all the processed pristine white table salt (sodium chloride), which is totally devoid of minerals, and can contain anti-caking ingredients.

However, unprocessed, high quality pink Himalayan or another mineral-rich crystal salt (like Celtic) contains sodium that is bio-available to the body, and also delivers over 80+ trace minerals that are important to overall health – including bone health and mineral balance. High quality mineral-rich salts often have a color – grayish for Celtic gray salt, and pinkish for Himalayan.

Chronic dehydration can lead to chronic fatigue and adrenal issues. Signs of adrenal fatigue? Dark circles under the eyes, lightheadedness, (especially when going from sitting to standing), sensitivity to light, sluggishness or difficulty waking in the morning, and sometimes being “wired but tired” at night. Replenishing lost minerals and sodium after exercise is critical to supporting the adrenals.

*Always make sure your athlete has some electrolyte replenishers in their bag – I like Skratch packets, or Clif shot blocks (they make one that has higher sodium content for those that need it, and it is made out of sea salt), because they don’t have the artificial colors and other chemicals that many other sports drinks have.  If you don’t like the idea of those, or salting your water, consider using trace mineral drops – like Spectramins, an ionic trace mineral complex. A “concentrated” seawater that may be recommended for mantaining normal pH, electrolyte levels, and proper mineral balance.. I usually pair Spectramins with Rehydration which supports the adrenals and the uptake of water into the cells – together they make “designer water.” Read more: Is Water Enough?

Rest & Sleep:
On your days off from workouts – try to let your body rest and recover!  And make sure to get plenty of good sleep – that is when the body does most of the repair, detoxing, and growth.  So turn off the TVs, iPads and iPhones (don’t bring them in bed!), and hit the pillow at a decent hour, especially if you have an early morning practice the next day. Taking the time to focus on recovery can go a long way to improve performance and help to prevent burnout, injuries, and chronic fatigue.




Sara Vance Article written by Nutritionist Sara Vance, author of the book
The Perfect Metabolism Plan A regular guest on Fox 5 San Diego, you can see many of Sara’s segments on her media page. She also offers corporate nutrition, school programs, consultations, and affordable online eCourses. Download her free 40+ page Metabolism Jumpstart eBook here.

*This article is for educational purposes only. The content contained in this article is not to be construed as providing medical advice. All information provided is general and not specific to individuals. Persons with questions about the above content as how it relates to them, should contact their medical professional. Persons already taking prescription medications should consult a doctor before making any changes to their supplements or medications.

©2015, all rights reserved. Sara Vance.

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